The remains of the mastodon, which was similar to the woolly mammoth but had straighter tusks as well as different teeth and eating habits, were found in an area about 250 miles north of Athens where excavations have uncovered several prehistoric animals over the past decade.
One of the tusks measured 16ft 4in long and the other was more than 15ft long, the research team said. They were found with the animal’s upper and lower jaws — still bearing teeth — and leg bones, said Evangelia Tsoukala, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Thessaloniki, who led the team that excavated the site.
“To find a tusk five meters (more than 16 feet) long, that was a big surprise,” Ms Tsoukala said.
“It's a very significant find because with these sections of the skeleton we can draw conclusions about this animal and its development,” she added. “We are also looking for clues about its extinction.”
Mastodons, an ancestor of the elephant, roamed Europe, Asia and North America, but how they became extinct remains a mystery. They are thought to have disappeared in
Europe and Asia some two million years ago, but survived in North America until 10,000 years ago.
Tsoukala said the male animal discovered in Greece lived about 2.5 million years ago.
“This animal was in its prime. It was 25 to 30 years old; they lived until about 55. It was about three and a half meters (11-and-a-half ft) tall at the shoulder, and weighed around six tonnes,” said Ms Tsoukala.
Dutch researcher Dick Mol, who assisted with the excavation, said plant material found near the tusks would be analysed to try to determine the environment in which the animal lived.
He said the skeleton could also provide information.
“It’s really a gold mine,” said Mol, a research associate at the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam. “These are the best preserved skeletons in the world of this species.”
Dave Martill, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth in England, said scientists can analyse the growth rings in the tusks to learn more about the world’s climate at the time the mastodon lived.
“These animals, in their bones, hold a whole load of information about the environment at the time — not just the animal,” said Martill, an independent expert.
The bones will also be scoured for the remote chance of finding DNA material.
Researchers from Germany and the United States recently analysed genetic material from an American mastodon recovered from fossils up to 130,000 years old found in Alaska, providing clearer insight into the evolution of elephants. If DNA is recovered from the animal found in Greece — which Mol acknowledges is “very doubtful” — researchers could compare it to other European and American mastodon fossils at an unprecedented level of detail.
The tusks were discovered in October by an excavation machine operator working at a sand quarry, but it took months for the scientific investigation to be organised.